Monday, December 5, 2011

Unanswered Prayers

(For my atheist friends out there - read if you dare. And don’t bother to complain about subject matter if it offends you. This is MY personal journey…and journal…not yours).

I am a Christian and it’s a fact that I don’t really bother to hide – if you were to ask me about it. You won’t find me watching BibleTV, proselytizing on the street corner, or trying to convert co-workers in the breakroom during lunch (none of which is really my style), but I am a Christian nonetheless. I have my own share of faults. I do things I shouldn't do, say words I shouldn't say, think thoughts that I shouldn't think, listen to secular music, etc. Being Christian does not make me perfect – instead, it often serves to remind me of just how imperfect I am. Lately, I’ve been feeling pretty imperfect. I’ve been feeling petty, bitter, heartbroken, and forsaken. Why?

The one thing I pray for without fail, most of the time before I even begin to pray for myself, is that God will bless my family and friends, that He will guide them through their days, but most importantly that He will keep them safe and in good health. It’s a prayer that gets repeated nearly word for word every night, somewhat out of habit but mostly because it’s important to me that God watches over the people that I love.

But lately, I’ve felt as though the telephone line between God and I has been snipped:

-I prayed for my grandfather, that God would take away some of his pain and let him spend his last days resting peacefully in his easy chair at home. In March, he died alone in bed at a nursing home in pain from multiple myeloma and metastatic cancer.  It was an ugly end to a kind and gentle man.

-I pray for my parents.  They're almost always first in my line-up, because they're without doubt the most important people in my life.  I pray that God will keep them safe, happy, and healthy.  Not even that worked out in my favor, when in April my mother was diagnosed with colon cancer, most likely due to underlying (and previously unrecognized) Lynch syndrome.  That gave birth to several tense and thoroughly unpleasant months for all of us.

-I prayed for my brother, that he would find happiness, that he would love someone worthwhile and be loved in return, and that he would realize how special he truly was. In July, Chandler committed suicide.

I feel abandoned sometimes. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't even a little angry. A small part of me looks at these requests and thinks, “How simple these requests are! You walked on water, You allowed the blind to see and the lame to walk, You turned water into wine, and You brought the dead back to life…and yet You can’t take away pain? You can’t prevent cells from going haywire? You can’t save my brother? What in the H-E-L-L? Where have You gone? Why are You turning a deaf ear to my requests?”

I am slowly coming to understand that it is not that God is ignoring my prayers and it is not that God is standing impassively by as bad things happen in my life. He listens and when these things occurred I believe that He hurt every bit as much as I did (and do) – maybe even more, if that’s possible. But most of all, I am coming to understand that every request cannot end in a resounding “yes.” I am beginning to understand that “no” is an answer, too. When I pray, “no” is NOT what I want to hear – it is NOT the answer that I am expecting to receive. Yet when I hear this word it makes me angry. I want...I want...I a hear YES. So why should I turn away in childish resentment when His answers do not meet up with my expectations? I claim to have faith and yet my faith is so very small and pitiful when my earnest requests are denied. It is not that there is something wrong with God, it is that there is something wrong with me and my impatient need for instant gratification. What kind of person am I, to forget what kind of King I serve?

My God is a God that creates beautiful stories. He writes masterpieces, composes magnum opuses, and paints surreal landscapes across the blank canvas of human life. He alone understands how one missed note in a chord, one absent color in a sunset, and one misspent word can ruin a work of art. Artwork requires both light and shadow, baroque music has its moments in minor keys, and even the best of novels requires a villain now and again. Without the less satisfactory elements, the entire piece of work would be woefully lacking. It occurs to me that perhaps my life functions the same way – without the tragedy, triumph would be much less sweet. I am trying my best to remember, especially on my bleakest days, that my story is far from being finished; it is a work in progress. I cannot see the story of my life but I trust that it is a work of art that is never far from God’s capable hands. And though it is currently difficult I must trust that even something beautiful can arise from this mess.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A Letter to my 16 year old self

Dear 16 year old Chelsea:

You’ll spend a lot of time during lunch staring at the table filled with football players wondering what it would be like to go out with one of them. Hours will be devoted to mental scenarios that place you on the arm of one of the school’s most eligible bachelors. But honey, they are bachelors for a reason.
You’ll get your chance in 2005 (with one of those very same "football table" boys) and please believe me when I say that it just isn’t worth it. He is an emotionally abusive male chauvinist who will treat you like dirt and do his best to trample on your dreams. He will tell you over and over again that you are not smart enough, good enough, thin enough, pretty enough, funny enough…and you will eventually buy the garbage he is selling you. So for now, walk past that table and stick with your daydreams…and if one of those boys approaches you, run like the wind.
You will get a job (in order to get a car) and when you put on that blue Wal-Mart vest, a part of you will die inside. You’ll spend a lot of time making fun of the job, finding sarcastic, snarky things to say about its clientele and making it known that you have big plans to blow that popsicle stand.
Yes, the job stinks, the hours are long and violate the ”under 18” labor regulations, and the pay is not worth the time behind that cash register. Remember this: it is a job that you will do only during the summertime. But please also remember this: it is a job. It will teach you about dependability, hard work, and how to be a team player. And please, above all else, don’t belittle the clientele – not everyone has the same opportunities as you do. Always remember and appreciate just how lucky you are.
You’ll spend a lot of time trying to be “angsty,” because you think that’s what being a teenager is all about.
Being a teenager is not about sitting in your room and trying to write poetry about subjects that are ultimately way out of your maturity range. One day, you’ll be able to write those angst-ridden stories and poems because they come from a place inside of you that tragedy and sorrow and anger and fear and loneliness have touched – but don’t try and make that day come sooner than it has to.

You think that your brother is the biggest thorn in your side; you hate the way he sits in the backseat making fun of your driving as you ferry him to and from school. Actually, he makes fun of you for just about everything and you spend a lot of time wishing that you could have been an only child. I know that you think your relationship is tenuous, and it really is, but don’t wait until tomorrow to fix it. Tomorrow will occasionally bring unwelcome surprises-
One day you WILL be an only child. When that day comes, you will wish more than anything in the world that you were still someone’s big sister. All the irritation and the anger that he made you feel over the years will disappear at the same time he does. So make sure to tell him how much you love him. Do your best to include him and make him feel important. Spend time with him. And on July 8th, 2011 (I know that seems far away right now), pick up the telephone when it rings. Talk to him. Trust me, it’s important.

Helpful hint – when your British Literature teacher gives you the assignment to write a thinly veiled insult (think Shakespeare) – do NOT write it about your Human Biology teacher. She’ll find out about it, understand just how insulting your piece really is, and will make you pay for the rest of the semester.

Don’t turn your nose up at Columbia Union College. True, it’s not Harvard…or St. Olaf College. We both know that you go CUC out of spite, because your parents tell you that you must at least give an Adventist school a shot, but at least one of us knows that you don’t stay at CUC for spite. You stay because you fell in love with the school and the city.
College will be an amazing time, but NOT because of the school’s name or status. You will meet three of the world’s most amazing women at CUC, and they will become closer to you than just best friends. They will be like sisters – and it is because of them that your college experience will be so rich with wonderful memories.

At the behest of one friend, you will tell a lie that hurts another. A BIG lie – the kind that should never be told. Admitting to this person that you have lied to them will be one of the most personally humiliating and shameful experiences of your life. Even though you will feel better after apologizing, you will always regret what you told them in a fit of confusion and childish pique. I wish I could tell you not to say those words in the first place, but then you would miss the lesson.
This person will teach you a lot about grace and a little about forgiveness – because somehow, they accept your apology and move past the incident. Even though you don’t deserve it, they will extend their hand to you in friendship. By the way – you’ll really love being their friend, and for an all-too-brief moment in time, you will really love them, too. It won’t work out and yes – it’s (still) your fault. But they will continue to be your friend and that’s what really counts.

If I could, I would make you fast-forward through the summer of 2002. Maybe. It’ll be a rough time for you. I know you won’t see it now, but trust me – you’ll come out better for the experience.
You’ll fall in love for the very first time that summer, but will be way too scared to say the words. That’s OK, because this boy will break your heart into millions of small pieces. Don’t waste ANY of your time wishing that you had told him how you felt because it wouldn’t have stopped him from leaving and at the end of the day, you’d still be standing with a broken heart waving him goodbye. He won’t love you the way that you love him and that’s OK, too, because you will learn what it feels like to have your heart stomped upon. Please remember that feeling – how much it hurts when your heart shatters – and do your best to be careful with the hearts of others.

I wish I could tell you that things will be easy, but they only get more and more difficult. You’ll do a lot of things wrong in your journey to adulthood, but you’ll also get a lot of things right. Don’t dwell on your failures or surround yourself in your mistakes, just push forward even though that will sometimes be the hardest thing to do. When you have wronged someone, do what you can to set the wrong to right. Enjoy your friendships and spend time with your family - one day, they will all be further away from you than you would like. Please be careful with people’s hearts and always choose your words carefully.

There is so much of this world that is waiting for you, so much joy and pain and heartache and love that you can’t even begin to imagine it right now. That’s ok, because your teenage imagination could never do justice to the future you will have. Your future isn’t everything you hoped it would be (futures never are), but in many ways it is better than you thought it could be.


Saturday, November 19, 2011

Holidays and Changes

I’ve always liked Thanksgiving. Not because of the break that it has always afforded me from the burdens of school (or the fact that it’s a day I don’t actually have to work this year), but because it’s a day where time stops in its tracks and allows peace its moment to shine.

Thanksgiving was always a quiet affair at our house, usually consisting of my parents, my brother, and me. Even though there were only four of us eating, my mother spent all day in the kitchen, beginning long before my eyes fluttered open. I’d wake up to the smells of turkey roasting in the oven, yeast rolls rising on the counter, and chocolate pudding cooking on the stove. Pots and pans would clash together as my mother fished them from the cabinets, glass lids would clink as they were carefully placed onto ceramic baking dishes, and peelings of potato skin would plop onto the countertop as they fell prey to the whir of the vegetable peeler. From the moment I stepped out of my bedroom, I was enveloped by the smells and sounds that ushered in our family tradition.

By the time dinner got underway, the table in the formal dining room was usually buried under plates of food – more food than one family could eat. There were always extras of certain items according to what each person liked the best: raw black olives and jellied cranberry sauce for me, heaps of mashed potatoes for Chandler, strawberry jello salad for my father, and bright orange sweet potatoes topped with melted marshmallows for my mother. Our bellies would fill more quickly than our heaping plates, and conversation was light, friendly, and familiar – the sound of a family with shared memories gathered around the table in love and thanksgiving. Dessert was no different, with its homemade pies and freshly whipped cream. Banana cream, or sometimes lemon merengue for my father, homemade pumpkin for my mother, chocolate pudding pie for me, and little ceramic ramekins full of homemade chocolate pudding for my brother – each with their own special dessert. Chandler loved the chocolate pudding so much he would very nearly lick the ramekin in an effort to enjoy every last bite. The holiday was something every family holiday should be: comfortable, rich, satisfying, and shot through with ribbons of love.

When the meal was at last put away neatly onto the shelves of the refrigerator, we’d all waddle into the family room, our stomachs close to exploding, to watch whatever holiday special or movie happened to be on television. Mom and Dad would lounge in the recliners, I’d throw myself onto the sofa, and Chandler would wrap himself up in Mom’s crocheted afghan, roll onto his stomach, and stretch out on the floor in front of my feet. We’d laugh and chatter and when night had fallen and the TV specials had run their course, my parents would rise from their recliners. My father would envelop us in big bear hugs and my mother would lovingly tousle our hair and kiss our cheeks and just like that, the day was done.

At some point during the night, Chandler would creep up the stairs from his basement bedroom to rummage around for leftovers in the fridge. We’d wake in the morning to emptied pudding pots and dirtied dishes, evidence of his midnight forage through the feast. We’d laugh and joke about it in the morning, about how much food he could hide away in his stomach and he’d always smile sheepishly while begging Mom to make just one more batch of mashed potatoes because he’d already eaten the dinner leftovers.

But things will be different this year.

This year, there will be no ecru mounds of mashed potatoes dripping golden butter into the serving dish. There will be no pots of rich, homemade chocolate pudding with festive dabs of freshly whipped cream waiting patiently for a spoon. The glass lids covering up the refrigerated leavings of the holiday feast will not be lifted at midnight with my brother standing poised over them with a fork, shoveling down the dinner remains as though he is afraid they will spoil before dawn. Oh, things will be so different!

I am staying in Vermont for the holiday; Chris and I will be driving down some small, two lane road to enjoy dinner at the home of one of his aunts. My mother and father will drive north to Montana to spend the holiday with my father’s family. The dining room table in my childhood home will stand empty this year and one chair in particular will remain empty no matter how many future dinners are served. I will desperately miss waking up in the twin bed of my youth to the scents of my mother’s kitchen. I will miss the dining room table piled high with favorite foods. I will miss gathering in the family room with my parents and brother, the love and laughter resplendent through the air. I will miss so very much my family, with its comfort and security and warmth. There are so many acute losses this year, each with its own sting of pain. But one loss sticks out the most:

This year there will be no more Chandler.

And that is the worst loss of them all.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Hope in the Hospital

My job breaks my heart.

There is a young male patient with leukemia who will never be granted the gift of old age. He got married in the hospital today while on oxygen struggling to breathe. The couple voiced words of love, faith, and hope to each other over the beeping of heart-lung monitors and the hustle and bustle of the hospital. His brand-new spouse has to look into his eyes from across a hospital bed and know that the opportunity to wake up next to her beloved is finite. They are together taking steps into a future that they always believed would be decades long while understanding that the decades they were promised have turned into days. Against the odds they are choosing love and they are choosing each other while making the hardest decisions and fighting the hardest fight of their lives.

This is love being patient and kind, believing in all things and hoping in all things. This is living in the moment and for the moment instead of merely making plans to do better tomorrow. I wish we could all love that deeply, cling to life that passionately, and enjoy the kind of faith which refuses to believe in anything less than the best.

The subject of death is a touchy one for me right now for many reasons. As a physician, death offends me and I want badly to defeat it at all reasonable cost. As a human being, all I can do is accept what I cannot defeat. Death is a river, slow and deep, in which we all will drown. It has a defined and inexorable path, no detours in between birth and death.  One can dam the river up with sticks and concrete temporarily and one can try to change its course with C-40 but eventually the river makes its journey regardless of the shenanigans of man. My world is one where important decisions, the C-40 to change death’s natural course, are made in minutes after a screaming pager causes me to tumble disoriented out of both a deep sleep and a warm bed. As I rub sleep from my eyes, I barely have time to remember my name before I am barraged with questions for which I have no easy answers and requests that I cannot approve; I have found that 3am is often far too early to accept the consequences of my decisions, but I'm slowly learning.

I want to keep patients alive. I want for that young man to eventually leave the hospital and carry his new bride across the threshold of an apartment even though I know it cannot be. So many times, situations in the hospital are “incompatible with life,” and despite all best efforts, the river swallows yet another piece of hope. I’m never sure which breaks my heart the most – the stories and the faithfulness and the hope of the truly sick patients – my own utter powerlessness in the face of their pain and suffering and dying- or their death, which brings with it the end of their stories and which jumps up and down cruelly on their faith. It reminds me of how fragile human life is and also continuously points out to me that death cannot be stopped, no matter how hard we fight daily.  So yes.  My job breaks my heart.  And I have a feeling that it always will.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Maybe today

Each day, my alarm clock rings way too early. I hit the snooze button exactly three times because that sequence will buy me fifteen extra minutes in bed and frankly, there's no place I'd rather be. Lying in bed is safe. It's warm and it's soft and when I'm still in bed the day hasn't really started yet - its too early for all of life's quirks and problems to surface. I know that the moment that I throw off the quilt and set foot on the worn carpet, that worries and concerns and stresses will come and collide back into my reality like a freight train hauling roughly one million tons of brick. Or explosives. It depends on the day. So I stay in bed as long as humanly possible before duty calls. Each day, as I lay in bed during that fifteen minutes that separates me from the chaos of life, I stare at the ceiling and say aloud, "Today is the day." I say it aloud to myself, in that quiet, still moment as fingers of morning flight shimmer tentatively around the frayed edges of the curtains. Perhaps if I say it out loud just enough, if I believe in it fervently enough, today will actually turn out to be the day that I desire above all other days in my life.

I truly want today to be THE day.

The day in early July where I am freshly back from a short 4th of July holiday visit to New York City. The day where I am contentedly looking at peripheral blood smears and previewing an unremarkable bone marrow biopsy specimen, already planning in my head what I want to do with my upcoming weekend. The day when the ringing telephone disrupts my work flow and I answer it, surprised that it is Chandler calling me from 2,000 miles away. The day when I realize that this moment, this phone call, is different from all of the previous moments with all of their previous calls. I want today to be the day where I set aside my work because I have already learned one fundamental truth: that work can wait and that he can't. I want today to be the day where we talk honestly, where I'm not busy being a doctor but busy being something far more important - a sister. The day where what I do might make a difference for him and that difference might make a better tomorrow for everyone.

But today can't be that day, because that day passed away from my grasp two months ago. It didn't just slip slyly through my outstretched fingers; I dropped the proverbial ball that day and watched as it shattered into millions of jagged pieces; pieces that have cut me so often in the intervening hours that I feel vaguely numb and disconnected. That day is gone and has left in its place hard-learned lessons. So instead, I send up a simple prayer in the instant before I rise from bed.

"Please, Lord, oh please, don't let today suck because I'm really not sure I'm capable of handling it."

I am reasonably sure that today will not suck, and if it does, it cannot ever be as bad as July 8th, 2011 at 12:00pm. In the last two months, I've developed different standards by which I judge the quality of my days. It's a scale where everything is relative - my brother can only kill himself once and he already managed to complete the task. I'm fairly certain that nothing that happens today will be as bad as what has already happened. At least I hope not, because I'm not lying when I say that I'm not capable of handling much more at this point; my emotional tolerance is worn threadbare.

And so if today will not bend the laws of natural physics and rewind itself into yesterday, if time will not allow me a do-over, I can at least hope that today will be the day that I wake up feeling good. I hope that today will be the one day where I do not collapse into tears while driving to or from work, where I do not hear the words "I'm not doing so good," or "fixed and dilated," or "Chandler is dead" loop repeatedly through my head. Perhaps today, I will not free-fall into the vast, churning brown rivers of grief and guilt that have flooded through the fields of my life. Perhaps today will be the day where life does not exhaust my emotional reserves, sinking my battleship before it has set sail into the sea of daily living. Maybe today my smile will be so real that it crinkles the corners of my eyes as it stretches across the plains of my face, instead of this poor facsimile that seems to be permanently plastered onto my face.

I live in hope that maybe, just maybe, today will be that day.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Happy birthday, little brother

Happy birthday…

You would have been 27 years old today. You should have woken up from your evening nap in the basement, shoved the cat off of your lap, and ambled upstairs to celebrate. We should all be sitting around the kitchen table eating a piece of Baskin Robbins ice cream cake with candles stuck haphazardly into it, and you should be blowing them out while ribbons of melted cream drip insolently down the side of the cake. You should be sitting in your chair, next to the window, ignoring the rest of us as you text furiously on your latest, greatest Smart-Phone. You should be shrugging sheepishly as you unwrap gifts, (including the Starbucks gift card I always get you )with a mumbled, barely audible, “Thanks.” You should be racing out the door to indulge in one of your smelly cigarettes before hopping into your prized yellow BMW M3 to join your fellow body-building gym rat friends.

Instead, Dad is in the basement with the television turned up loud to drown out his thoughts. He spent a really hard day outside - he’s ripped out the front porch and is tearing up the concrete to put in a new covered deck. He also smashed out the front houselights on the front of the garage today in a fit of grief. So many things outside lie shattered, in a state of repair - a perfect metaphor for our lives right now.   Mom is upstairs in bed, sleeping, perchance to dream a happier dream of days past. As for me? Well, here I sit in the kitchen on Mom’s laptop, writing you a happy birthday letter that you will never read, mentally singing you a happy birthday song that you will never hear.

Most days, I really hate you for what you’ve done.   I don’t think you could ever understand the anger and the hurt that currently ebb and flow within these four walls. I don’t think you could fathom the destruction that your absence has caused. I like to think that if you knew what the fallout of your actions would be, that you would have paused for just a moment before popping those pills. I like to imagine that you loved us enough that you would have spared us all the mess, if you had only known. But on so many occasions, I wonder if you loved us at all. What you did was not an act of love. It was not an act of redemption, of absolution, of comfort, of solace, of kindness, of gentleness, of peace. There is nothing that has destroyed us all so absolutely as your death. I can’t even understand why this happened. I tell myself that your depression was a terminal illness, that it ate away your brain, wrecking destruction in much the same way as a metastatic tumor. I’ll never understand any of this - ever. Just when I think things are under control, a small reminder of your life and death pops up demanding attention and the wound opens fresh.

The papers for your life insurance came in the mail today - apparently, you made me the sole beneficiary some unknown amount. I can’t decide whether to laugh or to scream. A part of me doesn’t even want to submit paperwork for the claim…the money would be so washed in blood and grief that its momentary sweetness would be lost. The other part of me says that this should just be a reminder to me of the boy you once were - the generous, giving soul who put others before himself, who saw a need arise and did everything in his power to fill it.

It reminds me of when we were just small children, turned loose on the prairie one summer. I don’t even remember the reason that you thought I ought to have a flower; perhaps I was sad and you wanted to brighten my day, or maybe it was just a reflection of the thoughtfulness you used to exhibit regularly. You scoured the prairie with its myriad of summer wildflower blooms before settling on what you thought to be the perfect flower. It was a huge, brilliantly purple blossom dwelling upon a tall stalk. With the abandon of childhood, you set about plucking the flower only to find that you had discovered a thistle in full bloom. Oh, how it pricked your small hands! You brought that beautiful flower to me, proud of your find; you had literally bled to find me something pretty. I think that’s my favorite memory of you, of the small, sunny boy you once were. I try and tell myself that this insurance claim and the financial easement it might eventually bring are same - a beautiful flower that you’ve bled to give me - but unlike that memory of yesterday, this gift was bought with a price too dear. I can't even find it in me to care much about the money - the only thing in my life I want at this moment is to see you again and money can't buy that.

I have so very many memories of you through the years - as the small boy who once was my best friend, as the cocky teenager with the world at his fingertips, as the withdrawn man who could still exhibit fits of kindness and love.   I wish that the last ten years had heralded happier memories to which I could cling. But I try to remember you only as the the small boy who did everything with me, who shared everything with me. I try to remember the flashlight as it glanced off your face, casting shadows on the bedcovers we huddled under, whispering our secrets and our woes. I try to remember the look on your face, the absolute joy, when you drove home for the first time in your bumblebee yellow 1995 BMW.  I try so hard to remember the good times, the ice cream cakes of birthdays past.

Another memory comes unbidden, of an elementary school playground, of harsh winter, of a little boy who had lost his gloves and stood before me with tiny frozen hands, tears streaming down his face. I put your little hands into my gloves with mine to keep them warm and tried my best to comfort you. The playground aide, a horrible woman by the name of Schumacher, found us huddled together and tried to pull us apart, informing me, “You can’t always save him, you know. He has to learn how to do things himself.” How true the words she spoke. I’m so sorry that I couldn’t help keep you safe, that all the love in the world could not save you from yourself. But at this instant, most of all I am sorry that you are not here in the kitchen with me enjoying a slice of birthday cake

Happy birthday, bud. I sure do miss you.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Notes on a Death

Last week, I got a 4am text message from my brother that read, “I love you. Just wanted you to know that. I love Mom, Dad, and Chris, too.” The next morning, I texted him back, telling him, “I love you, too. Call me sometime and we’ll talk.” The text was a little out of the ordinary for my brother (who was never prone to fits of affection as an adult) so I called my father, who was out. I called my mother, intending to mention the text to her…but got sidetracked in conversation and forgot all about it.

He called me two days later, on a Friday. I had just finished previewing a bone marrow biopsy in preparation for sign-out with my attending, when the telephone in the bone marrow room rang. As I picked it up, the 307 area code (Wyoming) registered, and I was more than a little confused. I had given the room number to Chris (who never uses it anyway), but not to anyone else. He must have been really determined if he managed to dial straight into the room where I was sitting instead of having me paged. When I picked up the phone, I heard him sobbing. His voice was thick with tears when he said, “Chelsea, it’s me. It’s Chandler. I’m not doing too good. Are you busy?”

At that moment, I was busy. My attending had just walked in, ready to sign out a bone marrow. So I told my brother that I was not free, but that I did want to talk to him. I promised him that I’d call him back in an hour, once we were all finished with work. I didn’t even say, “I love you.” I just said, “I promise, bud, I WILL call you back. Noon. One hour.”

I did call him back at noon, exactly like I promised, only to find that his phone went straight to a voicemail box that had not yet been set up. Sufficiently worried, I called my father’s phone, only to have my brother’s best friend answer. He started with, “Ken is in the ambulance with Chandler. He took some pills.” I just sort of shrugged to myself, thinking, “Oh Chandler, you asshole – now you’ll have a hospital bill you can’t afford when they fix you up.”

And then I heard the words “a LOT of amytryptyline pills.” The sister in me started praying as hard as I ever have that he had been found in time, before the medication took effect. But the doctor in me knew better – knew, somehow, that I would never see my little brother again. Now is not the time or place for a discussion on amytryptyline, but suffice to say that it is a serious, serious drug with a very narrow therapeutic window. In overdose, it is rapidly fatal. As a pharmacy technician, it’s something my brother (who knew almost as much about pharmaceuticals as I did) would have known.

I don’t know what my brother would have said to me on the telephone. I don’t know if he’d already taken the pills and was calling to say goodbye. I don’t know if he was in crisis and looking for me to talk him down before he did something stupid. I just don’t know. But what I do know is that in some of the final hours of my brother’s life, I was too busy to talk to him – busy with something that could have waited for another half an hour. What I do know is that my last words to him were not, “I love you.” What I do know is that when I got off the phone with him, I was annoyed at him for interrupting my work flow. Because, you see, this wasn’t the first time that my brother had called me, sobbing. It had happened numerous times throughout the years, and almost all of the calls always came at inopportune times (like in the middle of a class, or 3 in the morning, or during a movie.) He sounded no worse than he ever had in the past, and eventually, he’d also always been OK in the past. 9 times out of 10, things would have been fine. I just didn’t realize that this was the 1 time in 10 that I would fail my brother. I thought that when this day dawned, that I would be at peace – that I had already come to terms with the inevitability of this moment – but I guess not.

I’d give almost anything in my life just to be able to reverse time and talk to him – to tell my attending, “Hey, I really need to take this phone call.” But I can’t reverse time. I know, in my heart of hearts, that if he’d already taken the pills, he wouldn’t have told me where to find him. And if I had talked him out of crisis, it would only have been a temporary reprieve – it would have simply happened at another time. There are some kinds of broken that no amount of love can fix.

And so, my little brother, my only sibling, passed away on Friday, July 8th at the ripe old age of 26, just 22 days shy of his 27th birthday.

I’m not sure how one works through something like this. It’s early yet, perhaps too early to think things will ever be OK – but to be honest, I’m not sure they ever will be alright again. I’m not sure how one overcomes the guilt, the despair, the incredible anger (rage?), the tragedy, the loss, the hole in life’s fabric, the utter, senseless waste.

I’m sure that like many so called “suicide survivors” (ha – what a freakin’ joke) these feelings are not unique to me. But I’m not used to having my emotions be this labile, and in addition to the death of my brother, I also find difficulty dealing with these sudden bursts of crushing grief and, sometimes, rage. In some moments, I find myself so utterly angry that if my brother weren’t already dead, I would beat him senseless for being so careless and selfish. But mostly, there’s just sadness – a grief so great that words fail. Guilt is there, too, almost crushing the breath out of me as I walk through the land of “If Only.” I know that this is “normal,” that it is “expected,” but nothing about it feels normal to me.

I’m so angry that he was so cavalier about his life, that he was such a selfish, cowardly bastard that he couldn’t stand up and fight like a man. I’m so angry for the strain that this puts on my family, for the pain that this is causing my parents. I’m so damn mad about the strain that this is putting on my finances, so angry that I just had to spend $1,553.30 that I don’t really have on a pair of plane tickets, so angry that I have to take my leave unpaid, so angry that I have to dip into the “buy a house” savings to cover rent and expenses for August, so angry that my family has to clean up after his latest mess. We’re ALWAYS cleaning up after his messes, but this is the biggest fucking mess of all. I want to scream at him, I want to throw things at him, I want him to stand in front of me so that I can beat him senseless. And when that anger is spent, I want him to stand in front of me so that I can hold onto him tightly and tell him just how very much I love him, make him understand just how much I’ll miss him. I’ll never be able to do any of that. He’ll never be there at Christmas time or any other holiday. I’ll never smell his combination of body odor and cigarette smoke on anything again. I’ll never get to show him Vermont or help him discover the best maple creamies a person can have – which is a shame; he always did love ice cream. As my parents age, he won’t be there to help them (or to help me as I help them). I will never see him again in this lifetime. There are so many things he’ll never do, that WE’LL never do together, that he’ll never be. I never thought grief could crush, but sometimes I can’t even breathe. I lie awake at night, crying and replaying that telephone conversation in my head, praying and silently screaming. I am overwhelmed. I am spent.

I am a Christian, and I believe wholeheartedly that there is a God who loves us and watches over us all. I believe that this life is just a stopping place on our journey, that we are not meant for this world but for someplace so beautiful that it defies imagination. I know that One greater than I defeated death, that the grave can never claim victory. I know without a doubt that I will see my brother again one day, far away though it may seem. I don’t know what happens to our souls when we die – I haven’t a clue – but if they live on after death, I truly hope that my brother found the peace and comfort that he was so desperately seeking. I hope that he can finally know how very special he was, how very much he was liked and loved, how very much he will be missed. I hope that he is able to rest in peace.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A time to rejoice?

Osama bin Laden is dead.

To be honest, I never honestly thought that I’d hear those words. Now that they’ve been spoken, shouted, Facebooked, Tweeted, and splashed everywhere, I’m not sure what to think. Truly.

The part of me that is vindictive American wants to jump up and down while grinning from ear to ear. Why? Because part of me remembers the scared teenager I was 10 years ago. Ten years ago, I had just barely graduated from high school. My parents had just barely dropped me off at college, in a place that was quite literally across the country from everything and everyone I’d ever known. I’d been in D.C. for all of two weeks when September 11th happened. I was still in culture shock – transitioning from a Caucasian, middle class city of 50,000 people to a multi-ethnic/linguistic metropolis of 600,000. I was still figuring out how to get out of bed and to class on time without anyone forcibly dragging me out of the sheets; I was still trying to learn people’s names and get used to the idea of having a stranger for a roommate. And then, as Chicken Little once warned, the sky fell down.

When the towers fell and the Pentagon burned, I felt so small, so alone, and so very, very far away from home. The last place on earth I wanted to be in that moment was Washington, DC. I tried so hard to reach my parents, just to talk to them, and couldn’t because all of the lines were jammed with thousands of others doing the exact same thing in the exact same moment. I can’t really even describe how terrified and lonely I felt. Less than a week later, I found myself and three other people playing in a quartet on the pier in New Jersey, looking straight across the harbor at the smoking wreckage of the towers. After we’d finished, I simply sat down on a wooden bench and all I could do was stare. Debris was all over the place, bits and pieces floating on the water and a light ash still rained down from the sky. It was hard to draw myself away from the knowledge that those bits and pieces of ash and debris were the bits and pieces that make up the everyday lives of everyday people. Ten years later, when I reflect on that week in September, I can still feel the terror and loneliness and I can still see the ashes in the air. I didn’t lose a loved one that day, but a small piece of my childhood innocence was ripped away. September 11th forced me to understand that the world really was much bigger than I’d ever imagined, and so much more frightening.

So yes, a part of me raises a small, whispered, “Thanks!” to the American soldiers that rid the world of Osama bin Laden.

And yet - somehow – a larger part of me is unable to rejoice because what happened is not really justice – it’s revenge. And justice is not and never will be the same thing as revenge.

I’ll never argue that bin Laden was a good man, or a gentle one , and in some respects I believe that our world is ever so slightly better without his looming presence. But the reality is that for every bin Laden that we rid ourselves of, fifty more stand in line ready to take his place. I don’t believe that his death will bring about the end of terrorism; I think it will only cause those groups to organize and mobilize. It simply engenders more hatred within our enemies. I am afraid that the coming months and years will show America what terrorism really means. I’m afraid that his death will come at a cost that we ultimately will not wish to pay. Is that really something worth celebrating?

And we have forgotten that death always costs someone something. What about the 10 year old daughter who witnessed American soldiers placing a bullet into her father’s head? How does one celebrate that?

Speaking as a Christian (I’m not in the habit of preaching, so make of this what you will), ultimately, Osama bin Laden died without ever comprehending the depth of Christ’s love for mankind; he died walking a lonely road, never acknowledging or accepting a personal relationship with the Lord. He died with a heart so full of vengeance and hate that the concepts of grace, mercy, and forgiveness had no room to take hold. In rejoicing over this death, aren’t we also forgetting about grace? Is that not something about which we ought to be more ashamed than celebratory?

The death of Osama bin Laden, to me, is very much the embodiment of both triumph and tragedy. It’s a triumph, in a sense, for America – not for any one politician or political party – but for every American. We did exactly what we said we’d do nearly 10 years ago; we found bin Laden and we killed him. But it’s also a tragedy, because his death comes at the price of engendering more hatred and bitterness. To me, it is very much the principle of an eye for an eye making the whole world blind. MLK Jr said it better than I ever could when he said that:

“Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

I don’t have all the answers. I don’t know how to feel about the death of this man. The 18 year old me howls in triumph, while the 28 year old me shakes my head in disbelief. I can’t forget how I felt and what I saw in September 2001, but I am afraid of what the coming years will bring.

Osama bin Laden is dead.